As a Chinese pregnant lady that’s having weird food aversions and suddenly became a Chinese-food-only eater, I am officially on the hunt for authentic Chinese food in Texas (yes, I am now a Chinese food snob). Sadly, the city I live close to - one of the last bastions of the hipster-kind - Austin, Texas was just rated the No.1 worst city for Chinese food. Here are a few of the “not so Chinese” things I’ve found in American Chinese restaurants.
1. Fortune Cookies
It is probably well-known by now, that “fortune cookies” are not Chinese. They are actually distinctly Japanese. They were supposedly invented by Japanese bakers that immigrated to the States. In the early 90s, Wonton Food, the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the States, attempted to introduce fortune cookies to China, but gave up because the cookies were considered "American" by the Chinese. Ask a Chinese person who has never been to the United States what fortune cookies are. They probably won’t know what you are talking about.
2. General Tso’s Chicken
Nothing to do with General Tso
One of the most popular American Chinese dishes is General Tso’s Chicken. Though General Tso was a real historical figure, he never created the dish.
There are now two claims to the origin of the dish. A Chef Peng and a Chef Wang are both from New York and both claim to have created the dish. Meanwhile, Tso’s descendants in Hunan said they’ve never heard of the dish when interviewed.
3. Chinese Buffet with a Sushi Bar
Chinese buffets are popular among many Americans. It’s a quick, less expensive way to get a family lunch/dinner. I used to go to a nice, small buffet in a small town in Arkansas when I lived there. They had the best hot & sour soup I’ve ever had, But these buffet restaurants always had a sushi bar with a sushi chef. I don’t want them to confuse fellow Americans, but sushi is Japanese! Good sushi needs fresh ingredients, exquisite cooking skills and an artistic plating, but sushi at Chinese buffet restaurants looked sad and not very fresh. Chinese buffets usually had at least 9 dishes to choose from: cold dishes, hot dishes, dumplings and soups. These should be enough to choose from, right? No, they need an amateur sushi bar to add some “Asian fusion”. Just, why?
4. Orange Chicken
Authentic AMERICAN Chinese
I know orange chicken is beloved by millions of people of all ethnic groups (including many Chinese), but it is indeed American Chinese food. I’d never heard of the dish when I was living in China. Like General Tso’s chicken, it is another dish invented by early Chinese immigrants to adapt to American food culture. Now it’s a perfect late-night snack and it goes easily with steamed rice or fried rice. I’d say it’s job well-done!
5. Steamed Rice or Fried Rice?
No such options in China
Here in the U.S., when I order one dish with “rice”, one question is always asked, “do you want white rice (steamed rice) or fried rice?” sometimes it can also be “white rice or brown rice?” While in China, steamed white rice is the only choice and it’s considered a perfect match for all Chinese dishes. Whether you have spicy Sichuan dishes, or sweet Cantonese dishes, white rice is the default. Meanwhile, fried rice in China is a meal by itself, I would order just one plate of fried rice for lunch/dinner, nothing else, or I might be too full.
In China, fried rice also comes in different styles and flavors, like Yangzhou (Yeung Chow) fried rice, Larou (Chinese bacon) fried rice, Laoganma (the Godmother) fried rice, fried rice with just eggs, etc. It’s understandable that one serving of fried rice is enough and it doesn’t need a dish to go with it, right? I’ve learned to ask for “Kung Pao Chicken with white rice” rather than just “with rice” to avoid the confusion. I don’t mind having fried rice with a dish though, it’s just like having two dishes to me.
The disputes over “is American Chinese food real Chinese food” have been in existence for decades. But just like Sichuan cuisine, Cantonese Cuisine, Hunan cuisine and 5 other major Chinese cuisines, maybe we should consider American Chinese cuisine the 9th Chinese cuisine. It’s been evolved by Chinese and American chefs over the past century and has well adapted to be part of the western culture. It is real Chinese with a twist of American. There is nothing wrong with that.